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Big tastes in quaint places

Published Aug. 31, 2006

GULFPORT

This reviewrequires a warning: Peg's Pizza Cantina and Island Flavors 'n Tings are lovely but teeny.

Ambience and service are high-calorie and homespun. The proprietors at each tend to everything from the table to kitchen, so every bite gives nourishment and a smile. And it shamelessly costs little.

Island Flavors 'n Tings

The sweetest mango bread this side of Kingston is only one of the offerings at the Caribbean grocery and showcase of Helena Josephs. And it's not even the sweetest or moistest in the house; that might be the coconut bread or fruitcake so rum-soaked it requires a designated driver or a week of vacation.

Look beyond the simple storefront, the shelves of jerk seasoning and other essentials of island cooking and past the lengthy menu written in a strong, curvy hand on the wall. Josephs' special pride is a tiny dining room of only 12 seats but a storm of tropical colors and a sweet chorus of dolls in costumes from Jamaica to Martinique.

You'll get more style, color and flavor from Josephs' "dutchie" oven. The earthy spectrum of brown stew, peas and rice, curries, dumplings and chicken is a sturdy backdrop for a riot of color. Thai orchids, purple cabbages, red peppers and carrots strut in a carnival of colors; lowly rice forms handsome pyramids.

The flavors are a swirl of sweet, hot and spicy. The spices range from nutmeg to thyme, slow-cooked to make jerk sauce of finger-licking fire or punchy escovitch made lively with vinegar. Either are fine with plump, fresh shrimp.

My taste buds go for brown-stewed anything, less famous than jerk and more subtle; thyme, pepper and bits of cinnamon or ginger. Without fish or chicken, just rice in brown stew would be enough. It's also the base of oxtail, butterbeans and dumplings. Nothing could be richer than this farmhouse dish.

As in any Caribbean restaurant, I always partake of the treasures that old-time kitchens brew and bake from herbs, roots and simple grains. The first are found in a range of teas and punch Snapple can't touch: carrot, ginseng, malt, soursop and Irish moss.

Josephs makes a full gamut of fried and frittered snacks, johnnycakes, stamp and go, bammies, cornmeal festival and the flakiest patties I've had. Roti, the primitive crepes borrowed from the East Indies, are perfectly matched with curried goat.

Fortunately, we can now find island flavors in many places. Gulfport lucked out with very special t'ings too: Josephs' style, warm welcome, magical stewpots and a tropical garden of crisp vegetables, flowers and ripe fruit.

Want more? On Saturdays there are sweet potato waffles, black bean omelets and crabmeat Benedict at brunch.

Peg's Pizza Cantina

Flan doesn't seem Italian or Mexican. Nor is it Peg's; her friend and baker Anna brings that and other goodies by.

Yet this slice of faded strip center is clearly and happily Peg's. Everyone - the little kids mulling if they want their drinks in the bottle or on ice, or the guys at the bar debating alternative fuels and sangria sweetness - gets the smile and good cheer of Peg Wesselink, college prof turned Miss Rheingold.

Or of Tony Dodson, Peg's husband and partner, who also hung up his Ph.D. to become a publican. Tony will take just as much time with pint-sized customers as those of drinking age.

Peg's is first a pizzeria and a good one with crust that's almost cracker crisp, sauce as thick as fresh tomato paste, and a long list of toppings including sausage that has enough punch and fennel to be called Italian, artichokes and jalapenos for the brave.

This isn't fussy designer pizza, although they do cut it in a checkerboard (better for small fingers). Credit for crust and sauce go to another partner, their son, who brought the recipe back from Iowa but is now bicycling through Africa.

Peg's is also a cantina, with wraps, tacos and enchiladas made with fresh salsas and carefully simmered meats and chicken. The best are made with generous jumbo shrimp.

And Peg's is a bar, and I mean that in a good way. One tall wooden counter with only four seats, fine beers, local and import (more Bison IPA!) and two dozen wines, most less than $20. Sangria is custom-mixed as dry or sweet as you wish.

There's no TV, but chat about politics and Gulfport neighbors is just as entertaining.

Wesselink and Dodson gathered these ingredients, edible and potable, to build something intangible.

They spent years at USF and SUNY-Potsdam on grand topics, she in women's studies and political science, he in environmental studies and international affairs. They wanted their restaurant to be modest but noble, a community with spice and ice-cold brews.

They wanted to run a small gathering place, live within walking distance and garnish it with all their interests. They found Moroccan tables and Mexican chests at a local dealer, bought their vegetables down the street, papered the walls with activist posters and planted a garden in the concrete outside.

A blooming good idea.

Chris Sherman dines anonymously and unannounced. The St. Petersburg Times pays for all expenses. A restaurant's advertising has nothing to do with selection for a review or the assessment of its quality. Sherman can be reached at (727) 893-8585 or sherman@sptimes.com.

Island Flavors 'n Tings

1411 49th St. S, Gulfport

(727) 327-6416

Hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday; brunch by reservation, 9 a.m. to noon Saturday.

Details: Credit cards accepted; no alcohol.

Prices: $4.95 to $15.95.

Peg's Pizza Cantina

5010 Gulfport Blvd. S, Gulfport

(727) 328-2720

Hours: 4:30 to 10 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Note: Closed this Saturday for the holiday weekend.

Details: Beer, wine; no credit cards.

Prices: $5 to $14.